SJC Panel (L-R) Dr. Va Lecia Adams Kellum, Karen Elzy, Dhakshike Wickrema, Amy Perkins, Cheri Todoroff, Jacqueline Waggoner, Molly Rysman Courtesy Photo

On Wednesday, March 13, St. Joseph Center hosted a lunch panel discussion that included Jacqueline Waggoner (VP and Southern California Market Leader for Enterprise Community Partners, Inc. and Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) Commissioner); Molly Rysman (Housing and Homeless deputy to Supervisor Sheila Kuehl); Dhakshike Wickrema (assistant senior deputy for Homelessness and Mental Health); Amy Perkins (director of Interim Housing Strategies for the Office of Mayor Garcetti); Cheri Todoroff (director of Housing for Health with the L.A. County Department of Health Services); and Karen Elzy (St. Joseph center graphic designer and formerly homeless agency client). The panel was moderated by St. Joseph Center president & CEO Dr. Va Lecia Adams Kellum and the event was presented in conjunction with the Santa Monica Commission on the Status of Women.

Responding to the community’s request for more dialogue about this pressing social issue, St. Joseph Center put together a panel of experts in the field who provided insight into how structural, cultural, and economic challenges have contributed to the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles – and the specific issues that women experiencing homelessness deal with daily. More than 50 community members attended the Lunch & Learn, which was catered by St. Joseph Center’s very own Culinary Training Program students.

The panel was a well-rounded discussion showcasing perspectives ranging from a formerly homeless woman who shared her firsthand perspective to experts who explained larger factors that contribute to women falling into homelessness – and described what community members can do to help. St. Joseph Center’s Karen Elzy – a single mother who experienced homelessness in 2010 – told her story of how she struggled to find work after her business went under, despite having two Master’s Degrees. Elzy said “I left no stone unturned and did everything I could to find work and to provide shelter for my son.” Elzy turned to Codetalk, St. Joseph Center’s vocational program that provides low-income and previously homeless women with the opportunity to learn coding and web technology skills. She now proudly serves as St. Joseph Center’s graphic designer.

Molly Rysman discusses systemic inequalities that have led to a lack of affordable housing Courtesy Photo

Elzy’s story was followed by a discussion about why women are especially vulnerable to becoming homeless. Assistant Senior Deputy Wickrema explained how systematic and cultural inequalities have led to homelessness disproportionately affecting Black, single women. She mentioned the average single woman on welfare makes $500/month – well beneath what a person would need to cover the basic rent and necessities. Other panelists underscored how rent increases and an overwhelming lack of affordable housing contribute to the staggering increase in homelessness in L.A. – of which a disproportionate number are people of color — while 9% of the L.A. County population is Black, they make up 40% of the region’s homeless population. Racism and pay inequality were common threads throughout the hour-long panel.

The discussion ended with questions from the audience. Many asked how members of community can get involved and make a difference. Commissioner Waggoner gave the audience three things we, as a community, can do to advocate for our homeless neighbor One – tell a friend about what they learned at the panel; two – say yes to crisis housing and affordable housing projects in your neighborhood; and three – live with compassion and empathy for our homeless neighbors With the knowledge of daily struggles homeless women–and all our homeless neighbors – face, guests left with concrete knowledge that can help them create change in their own communities.